Women pilots of World War II deserve to be laid to rest at Arlington


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, Feb. 7:

Here’s a World War II story featuring an unsung protagonist: Jill McCormick was piloting an A-24 dive bomber/scout plane out of Baltimore when she heard the loudest sound ever — an explosion — followed by terrifying silence. “I got on the radio and yelled, ‘Dingy, dingy, I’m gonna ditch it.’ Then I put it into Delaware Bay.”

Her distress call summoned an ambulance, which arrived just as McCormick emerged from the drink. When the driver asked McCormick if she was OK, the flyer replied: “Sure, I always land this way.”

We can’t vouch for the exact dialogue because the story was told with two different punch lines in a 1977 Chicago Tribune story, but McCormick flew — and on that day, swam — as part of the Army Air Forces. She was a WASP: one of 1,074 members of a female paramilitary air force who flew missions at home to free up more male pilots for war duty.

In their day the brave WASPs never got their due. They had to fight for recognition, and now here it is all these years later and they are still getting short-changed, even as the number of surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots dwindles to its last 100 or fewer.

The issue is whether to grant departed WASPs the honor of having their ashes laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors. The Army has decided to keep them out. That’s wrong.

WASPs were not combat-trained, but they took on a combination of dangerous flying assignments and grunge work that involved just as much risk and sacrifice as many a soldier, sailor or Marine faced. They ferried fighters, bombers and VIPs across the country, flew planes towing targets for live-ammunition gunnery practice, test-flew repaired aircraft and served as instrument instructors.

They also died in service to their country: 38 WASPs were killed in accidents. One of the biggest risks they faced was the condition of their aircraft, which were sometimes worn out from combat duty.

During the war years, the WASPs were civilian volunteers, not members of the military, meaning there was no official financial support or recognition for those killed on the job. In some cases fellow pilots helped chip in to ship the body home. There was supposed to be a deal with Congress during the war to get the pilots commissioned as military officers but it fell through. Only in 1977 were the WASPs granted veteran status. They got the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

In 2002 Arlington officials said WASPs were eligible for burial with military honors, but last year the Army said the pilots’ status gave them access to programs administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs, such as VA cemeteries, but not to Arlington. The concern is a lack of space, the Army told Tribune Newspapers. Over the years, 17 WASPs were laid to rest at Arlington, 15 of whom would have been eligible for other reasons. The Army says the remains of the other two can stay, but that’s it.

The family of the late Elaine Harmon, a WASP, and others are pushing to overturn this slight and allow the remains of WASPs to be stored in an urn in a crypt at Arlington. Legislation introduced in the House and Senate would overturn the Army decision.

If you’re still not sure these WASPs earned this honor, consider Margaret Phelan Taylor, born on a farm in Emmetsburg, Iowa. She saw a Life magazine cover photo of a female pilot and joined up. While flying a transport aircraft out West, smoke appeared in the cockpit. She was trained to bail out in case of trouble, but her parachute was too big to fit, she told NPR in 2010. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going until I see flame. When I see actual fire, why, then I’ll jump.’ “

Turned out to be just a burned-out instrument. Those WASPs were some cool customers.

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